Roy Hackett, pioneer of black civil rights in Britain, dies at 93

Inspired in part by the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Jamaican-born British activist Roy Hackett teamed up with a few friends to organize their own civil rights campaign in 1963, attacking the racist policies of a local bus operator in Bristol, England.

The company has refused to hire non-white drivers or collectors, a policy which became clear to Mr Hackett when he saw a black man crying outside the bus company’s offices after reporting to a job interview only to be told the job was gone.

After hearing the man’s story, Mr Hackett recalls: “I then went to talk to the company and said, ‘If we can’t teach him to drive the bus, then the buses won’t be not driven.’ ”

Mr Hackett then spearheaded a successful four-month protest that has been credited with reigniting the grassroots civil rights struggle in England and changing the face of race relations in Britain. He was 93 when he died on August 3. His family announced the death to British media but did not share further details.

The black boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Co. led to the end of Britain’s longstanding unofficial – but legal at the time – “colour bar” policies. Until the boycott, it was common practice in Bristol to deny housing or employment to non-whites. The bus company claimed that black transport personnel would discourage white passengers.

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By the time Mr Hackett launched the boycott movement, London and other UK cities had begun removing ‘No Blacks’ signs and hiring non-white bus and train drivers and station staff. But Bristol had generally resisted change.

Mr Hackett’s boycott won key support from some white Labor Party politicians, including future Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Groups of Asian and white students from the University of Bristol also joined.

Protest groups in Bristol, led by Mr Hackett, stood in front of buses to stop them.

The bus company accepted protesters’ demands on August 28, 1963, the same day the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It took two more years for Parliament to pass Britain’s landmark Race Relations Act in 1965, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of “race or ethnic or national origin”.

Mr Hackett was honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his civil rights activism, but unlike King or Rosa Parks in the US, he never really became a household name in Britain.

“He could have been Britain’s Martin Luther King if he had the same PR,” Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said in an interview with the London-based Metro newspaper. He added that Mr. Hackett “was the one who could galvanize the community, working at the grassroots level. He said he was “born militant” and I could see the fire in his eyes about the situation, even all these years later.

After the success of the boycott, Mr Hackett founded several groups to support Caribs and other non-whites in Bristol. This led to the creation in 1968 of the St. Pauls Carnival (named after a district of Bristol), an annual summer event that brings together residents of all races and ethnicities.

Roy Hackett was born in September 1928 in Islington, Jamaica. He grew up in the Trench Town district of Kingston, the capital, an area later made famous by reggae singer Bob Marley, who spent part of his youth there.

Mr Hackett worked as an accountant until 1952 when he left for England to help rebuild the country after World War II. He joined a group of Caribbean migrants who became known as the Windrush Generation, named after the first large ship, the Empire Windrush, involved in a wave that would bring hundreds of thousands of people across the Atlantic Ocean. .

His ship was bound for Liverpool but diverted in bad weather to Newfoundland, where he and his family prepared to disembark, thinking it was England.

He moved to Bristol in 1956, but the ‘better life’ he had been promised turned into what he described as ‘a dog’s life’.

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His girlfriend, Ena, joined him in Britain and they married in 1959. They were regularly turned down for accommodation and employment, he said.

“I walked down Ashley Road [in Bristol] looking for accommodation and found a house that had no card that said ‘no gypsies, no dogs, no Irish and no colored people’,” he said at the BBC several years later. “The lady opened the door, saw me, and without saying a word, just slammed the door. It was a struggle, people were obviously racist.

Mr Hackett eventually got a job as a construction worker and helped build a nuclear power station known as Hinkley Point near Bristol. For a time, one of his work colleagues was future Welsh pop superstar Tom Jones. “He was still singing,” Mr Hackett told the BBC.

Survivors include two daughters, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Mr Hackett told the Guardian in 2020 that Black Lives Matter protests, first in the US and then around the world, gave him hope for racial justice. “We fought for what we have now,” he said. “Go further.”

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